The Little Prince (2011)
Directed by Phillip C. Sneed
The Little Prince is one of the best-loved books of all time, read by children all over the world—and yet I came to it only as an adult. Although I knew it by reputation, I had no idea what a richly layered and very grown-up work it was, despite its popularity as a “children’s” book. It spoke to me in ways I had not anticipated. It spoke to me of the loss of childhood innocence, of creativity stifled, of magic and joy and mystery. I came to realize that this was not just a story for children but a fable for everyone. I fell in love with The Little Prince when I was preparing that earlier production, and became more excited about a project than I had been for quite a while. I’m delighted to be able to revisit it, some twelve years later—and to work with the same design team: set and lighting designer Trefoni (Tony) Rizzi, and costume designer Clare Henkel.
Tony had worked on an earlier stage adaptation, and offered his insight that the story all happens in the mind of the Aviator, as he lies injured in the sand after crash-landing in the Sahara Desert. I was skeptical at first, until I started to read more about the writer of the original novel, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The more I learned about his life, the more I started to see that the story was, at least in part, autobiographical: Saint-Exupéry had himself crash-landed in the Sahara, and had numerous hallucinations during the three days before he was rescued. In the 1939 book Wind, Sand and Stars, he wrote about how little children are often prevented by the rules of the grown-up world from realizing their creative potential—which seems to me what this story is mostly about.
The designers and I decided early on that the look of the production would be taken directly from the delightful original illustrations in the book. Drawn by the author himself, and figuring prominently in a story about a man who loved to draw as a child but was discouraged by the grownups, these illustrations seemed the perfect choice for bringing to life the Aviator’s hallucinations. The notion of “journeys” also figured prominently in our plans—the Aviator’s journey across the Sahara, the Little Prince’s journey from his home planet to the earth, and of course the Aviator’s inner journey. As with all great journeys of mythology, the hero has a transformative experience, learning important lessons in the process.
Lastly, I wanted to represent two distinct cultures through the music chosen for the production—the French culture of Saint- Exupéry (and of the Aviator), and the culture of Northern Africa, where our hero finds himself stranded. Music thus became the other anchor for our approach to the story.
I believe that we all have a little prince (or little princess) inside us, and that the challenge is to learn how to listen to that voice within. The key, I suppose, is to heed the lesson imparted to the Aviator by the Fox: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly—what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An experienced pilot crashes in the Sahara Desert. With limited food and water, and only his own expertise to fix his plane, he worries how long he can survive in the barren landscape, when suddenly the Little Prince appears. Despite being distracted by the boy’s incessant questions and insistence that the aviator “draw [him] a sheep,” the man bonds with the Prince. The two of them learn of each other’s lives, what makes us human, and the importance of a rose on an asteroid far away.
ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY
The novel, The Little Prince was one of the last works published during Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s life. Born in 1900 to an aristocratic family, he was the third of five children, and the oldest son. The young Saint-Ex (an affectionate nickname gained after he became a pilot) seems to have been an intelligent man, able to master any subject to which he applied himself. He tried to attend naval school, but failed his oral exams, only to then become an auditor at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied architecture. In 1921, Saint-Exupéry was mobilized for two years of military service, and was assigned to the air force regiment in Strasbourg. Here he gained his civilian and then military pilot’s licenses, and had his first introduction to North Africa during training in Morocco.
The end of World War I left most aviators flightless, but Saint-Exupéry managed to stay in the air by signing on with an international postal service and helping to establish flight paths in Africa and South America, through the Andes. The ensuing years were split amongst France, South America and the United States. In 1935, attempting to break the record for flight between Paris and Saigon, Saint-Exupéry and his navigator/mechanic Prévot crashed in the Sahara Desert. For five days they were stranded, and were only saved when they crossed a Bedouin trail, and a passing caravan picked them up. Saint-Exupéry was a prolific writer, publishing throughout his life in newspapers, books and magazines.
As World War II approached, Saint-Exupéry was too old to fly, and his many peers and colleagues encouraged him to use his status to inform others about the war. However, Saint-Exupéry was happiest when flying, and he obtained a special permit to continue to fly and train on the new, faster planes. On July 31, 1944, the day before his friends planned to ground him, he took off on his final reconnaissance mission, only to vanish.
In 1998, a fisherman working south of the port of Marseille found a silver bracelet that allegedly belonged to Saint-Exupéry. In the following months, a diver discovered the wreckage of a plane in the same area.
The French government and press and Saint-Exupéry’s descendants all dismissed this information as a hoax, and closed the area off from further investigation. It was not until 2003 that the wreckage was examined and discovered to be Saint-Exupéry’s plane. How his plane crashed into the Mediterranean 100 miles away from his plotted course is a mystery, but unlike his Little Prince, who vanished, the body of Saint-Exupéry had at last been found.
By Hadley Kamminga-Peck
Most people first encounter The Little Prince as a children’s book, or perhaps in a beginning French class. It is an easy story to enjoy; it is simple, yet with elements recognizable from daily life. Who has not known the pleasure of cold water to quench extreme thirst, or the sadness of leaving a tamed animal? Antoine de Saint- Exupéry’s poetry carries the reader along on an unforgettable journey, bringing to life his adventures in the desert.
What few realize is that Saint-Exupéry based The Little Prince on his real-life experiences as an aviator. When he became a pilot, aviation was in its infancy, and Saint-Exupéry pioneered many of the routes, practices and techniques. His initial training included fixing the planes, which led Saint-Exupéry to register patents for many inventions that are utilized in current plane models. Saint- Exupéry also test-flew new plane models, which makes it no surprise that he crashed several times, on land and over sea. His 1935 crash in the desert informed much of the Aviator’s story in The Little Prince, and many of the characters Saint-Exupéry encountered during his career as a pilot made their way into the book. During his crash in the Sahara he met the little desert foxes that would become the Prince’s tamed fox, saw the desert roses and mountains, and heard the response of the echo. His fellow pilots and commanding officers in the military also make appearances in the personas found onthe various planets.
However, the autobiographical details of the book are far more prevalent than Saint- Exupéry’s profession. The character of the Rose was inspired by at least three women in the author’s life: Louise de Vilmorin, Renée de Saussine and Consuelo de Saint-Expuéry neé Suncin. Each woman represents a different moment of Saint-Exupéry’s romantic life. Louise was the first woman to whom he was engaged, and though he worked hard to appease her family and take care of her, even giving up flying, she eventually broke off their engagement. Renée represented a distant love, someone to whom he wrote constantly and therefore molded into his image of the ideal woman, though she never responded to his courtship. Consuelo eventually became his wife and wrote a novel entitled The Tale of the Rose, which told the story of how their love inspired the character of the Rose. Though their relationship was tumultuous, and they eventually lived apart, Saint-Exupéry always held great affection for his wife. Most likely it was a conglomeration of these women, as well as components from his mother, his three sisters and his imagined “ideal woman,” that created the Prince’s Rose.
The Little Prince himself is a reflection of Saint-Exupéry’s younger brother François, who died in 1917. Saint-Exupéry (who bore the Prince’s blond curls as a young child) was impressed with the calmness and dignity with which his brother accepted death, and immortalized this trait in the Prince. In his memoir, Flight to Arras, he says, “One does not die… There is no more death when one meets it… When the body breaks apart, the essential is revealed. Man is only a knot of relationships…” The Little Prince is the distillation of the thoughts, ideas, relationships and people Saint-Exupéry had encountered throughout his life. Saint-Exupéry said it best in a letter to his mother: “You must look for me as I really am, in what I write, which is the scrupulous, meditated result of what I think and see.”